Thank you thank you thank you for reading and reviewing and all that jazz. Seriously, you give me the strength to continue this little tale.

About this chapter... just trust me, okay? Some parts get a little dicey, but please just trust me and finish the chapter before you decide you've had enough with this story and leave me forever. Or skip to the last little section if you can't wait to find out what happens.

Donna is awesome. Totally couldn't do it without her.

I own nothing.

"Well now, Bella. Aren't you just a lovely greeting party?"

I stalk past Felix where he leans against the doorway to the private jet. It's not often I meet him here at the small airport in Port Angeles, but there is no way I'm letting him get anywhere near Edward.

Aro could easily find out about my husband from a single touch, and if Edward met Felix who knows what sort of memories he would be privy too. The last thing Edward needs right now are images of me getting naked with yet another vampire. Felix's mind isn't safe, from Aro or Edward.

Still, Aro has very little interest in touching the vampires he's known for centuries. I imagine reliving Felix's every thought and action for eternity would be exhausting. Asking Felix even the most innocent of questions is a risk, but one I'll have to take.

"What can I say? I just missed you so terribly much," I explain, my tone saccharine as I drop dramatically in a seat by the window. It's dark out still, but I can clearly see the familiar forest surrounding the runway.

That way, just to the west, lays home and Edward and our daughter.

Felix snickers, barks some instructions at the poor pilot about taking off as soon as we've refueled, and sits across from me.

"Where are we going?" I ask.


"And the details?" I ask, all business.

"Some coven is getting a little too large and a little too comfortable out and about around humans," he explains. Felix gives me a pointed look and I understand the subtext.

Aro wants one of them. Some poor sod in this coven is powerful and unique and wanted by Aro. And we'll destroy them all, giving the gifted vampire the choice: join us or turn to ash.

"Lovely," I mutter.

Felix hums in agreement.

Usually when I join up with the guard it is just some poor haunted soul, gone a little mad by this unlife and driven too close to humanity. At least I can justify my actions with these legitimate threats. For these vampires, it's almost a kindness. Almost.

This other thing, this collecting mission we're going on, the guilt from this will sit in my belly for the rest of my eternal years.

I stretch out, doing my best to ignore the vampire sent to collect me this time. Under different circumstances, Felix and I might be almost friends. He's brutal and violent, but somehow good humored and endearing at the same time.

And he's got no love for Aro, that's for damn sure.

Although he is one of my favorites by comparison, I have absolutely no desire to interact with him in this moment. I have to ask my delicate questions, but it is a long ride to Egypt.

For now, I close my eyes and attempt to make my insides match my outsides.

I'm clothed in my standard Volturi attire. Everything I wear is black: tight pants tucked into tall leather boots and topped off with a fitted black jacket. In my bag is the cloak in black, red, and gold. I won't put it on until the last possible moment. I hate looking like them, matching them.

Usually I can shut it off. I switch into cold, hard vampire mode. Somehow my shield seems to protect my humanity, storing it away for later and letting the demon take on that burden.

But Edward is back now and I can't do it. The feelings remain and it terrifies me that in this state I'll mess up in some way that will indicate to Aro that things aren't the same, that Edward exists.

"Bella?" Felix asks. "You okay?"

I open my eyes, surprised to hear the genuine concern in his voice. Even worse is that if Felix can see that I'm a mess, it will be obvious to the rest of them, especially Aro.

"What do you mean?" I ask, attempting to keep the panic out of my voice.

"Something is different about you," he muses, studying my face intently. "You seem… fragile."

"Fragile," I repeat.

"Yes, that's the word," he continues as my rage boils. "I didn't know you did fragile."

"Felix," I say, deciding to jump right in and distract him as I quietly fall apart on the inside. "Do you remember what it feels like to be happy?"

He lets out a sharp laugh, but he stops abruptly when he realizes that I'm serious.

"Happiness is a mortal thing, Bella. What's happiness when you have power?" he asks, grinning at me. The smile doesn't reach his eyes.

"Nessie is happy."

"She's also half human."

"Nessie makes me happy."

"Okay, Bella," he says, chuckling again.

"I'm just saying it's possible. There is more to this unlife than power politics," I inform him, carefully gauging his reaction. He cocks his head to the side and watches me. I can see him puzzling something out in his head. "You could be happy again, Felix."

His eyes narrow and I wonder if he has any idea what I'm hinting at.

"You…" I take a deep breath, steadying my nerves. "You could be free."

His eyes go wide for a moment and I know he gets exactly what I'm saying. But then the cocky bastard smirk is back. "You've totally lost it, babe."

It's enough for now, but I can tentatively count Felix as an ally. Perhaps even Dmitri by extension.

I smile at him as I dig around in my bag for my iPod. I put on angry music, tone out my perceptive almost friend, and cultivate my rage.

Hate will stomp out this supposed fragility.

By the time we land I manage to pull on the mask, all signs of fragility eradicated. I'm fully the cold, hard, soulless demon.

We wait until nightfall before joining the rest of the guard. Jane tries zapping me. I give her a cocky grin in return. It's a greeting ritual that has developed between the two of us over the years.

Jane is definitely not an ally.

I am unsurprised to see the three. Typically they do not join us for simple elimination missions, but this is all about collection, and Aro would never miss it.

"My sweet Isabella," he croons in sugary tones when Felix and I arrive. I can't bear to look at his wide smile, so I focus on the space between his eyes, only pretending to meet his eye. He moves like a ghost, hands spread, his cloak and robes billowing around his feet.

"Aro," I murmur, playing my role as well as I can manage. I give him a small smile and offer him my cheek. It takes far more effort than usual to keep from cringing when his paper-thin lips brush my skin.

He likes us small and powerful and totally at his mercy.

It causes me physical pain to stay still and let him touch me.

"You look ravishing, my darling," he says.

I murmur a "thank you" and pull up the hood of my cloak. I nod hello to the other brothers, and grin at Dmitri. I'm thankful when we quickly move out. The sooner we go, the sooner we get this over with, the sooner I go home.

It's worse than I anticipated. Maybe all the feelings and all my humanity stirred up by my relationship with Edward is making me overly sensitive, but it's horrible.

There are four of them, two mated pairs.

Aro recites their fabricated crimes in that high-pitched, bone chilling voice of his. The coven denies the allegations. I linger in the back, extending my shield to protect the offensive members of the guard as they move on the four terrified vampires.

My eyes go wide when it becomes apparent which vampire Aro covets. Benjamin, Aro called him earlier, moves the earth to protect his coven.

There is nothing I can do as he rains giant boulders down on the guard. They dodge artfully and fall upon the other pair, cleanly decapitating the female as the older male howls in rage. Jane renders the male immobile with pain as other members of the guard efficiently dismantle him and his mate.

Dmitri moves to light the pile of body parts on fire, but Benjamin steals the flame, using it to dive Jane and Dmitri away even as he fights eight other members of the guard.

"Isabella," Aro murmurs.

I push out my shield, experimenting to see if this gift is something I can block. It's shockingly effective, and I actually smile at my own power before I remember that this is no victory.

Benjamin lets out a dismayed cry when his flame is unable to pass my invisible barrier. I feel the heat of the fire and it makes me feel powerful somehow.

Why I can do this with flame but not rock is a mystery.

"Alec," Aro says lazily.

I pull my shield tight around the dispatched members of the guard to keep from interfering with the blindness that Jane's brother sends speeding towards our remaining victims.

Flames crackle as half the coven burns. Benjamin and his mate cling to each other, their wide eyes unseeing. They scream for mercy in Egyptian. I do not speak the language, but the message is obvious.

They don't understand. They've done nothing wrong.

I hope the female is permitted to live. It could go either way with Aro, depending on his mood.

I want to feel the fire again. Maybe when Benjamin comes back to Volterra I can get him to turn his gift on me. Something was there. Something powerful.

Aro steps to the forefront, flanked by his brothers, and I pull my shield tightly around them. Combined with my protection is Chelsea, a different sort of shield. Her fingertips graze Aro's back, surrounding him in a force field that will protect him from physical threats.

Aro converses with them in their native tongue, explaining how things will be. Benjamin is fervent, gesturing towards his mate. She clutches him, tucked into his side. They stare right at Aro, despite their lack of sight. Her hand fists in his shirt.

I can't watch and in this moment I loathe myself utterly and completely. I hate being part of this; hate them for forcing me into this role.

Protector of the protectors. Assistant to the demons.

The blinded couple could easily be Edward and I. The lamentable creature in Aro's sights could easily be our daughter. Or me. Or Alice. This is the embodiment of my greatest fear, that I could misstep with the Volturi some how and have them descending upon us. When the fighting ends, Aro would make sure that only Alice and Nessie and I remained. He'd offer us the choice.

Join us or turn to ash.

The three converses in tones hushed enough to keep their words private. I catch a glimpse of Marcus, shocked to see his lips moving. He is usually so sad and so quiet.

Aro must be feeling quite jolly today. He lets the mate live. For now.

I am part of a small contingent of the guard that will fly back to Italy on the private jet. The majority of the guard prefers to run and swim. Caius in particularly loathes human technological advances, but there is no denying that a couple hours in the air is speedier than a swim across the Mediterranean.

I want to run so fast my mind goes blank and my spirit feels free, but the longer it takes for me to get back to Italy, the longer it will be before I can get myself home.

One day. That's my goal. One day in Volterra with Aro.

Sometimes his mind is elsewhere and he brings me to bed out of habit and a need to remind me of my place. Sometimes he takes his time.

Aro boards the plane first, followed by Jane, Chelsea, Dmitri and I. The leader of the Volturi never goes anywhere without protection. Sometimes I wonder why his collection simply doesn't rebel. Physically Aro is out of practice. He is weak and he would fall, if only his collection could collectively see his tyranny.

Not that any of this would ever happen. Not when he has devotees such as Jane.

Fucking Jane. Hate her. So much.

Jane, Aro, and I take seats. Aro is next to me. I stare out the window at the rising sun and wish Jane were by my side, which is really saying something.

"Well now, my sweets," Aro says, his hand finding my inner thigh. I am unable to stifle the shiver of disgust that runs through my body. Hopefully the vampire lord is delusional enough to mistake it for a shiver of pleasure. "Isn't he marvelous? Benjamin. Just marvelous."

"Absolutely marvelous," Jane echoes. The adoration I hear in her voice makes me ill. Aro likes them small and powerful. For centuries before me, Jane was Aro's favorite, much to Felix's dismay.

I hum my agreement, keeping my gaze out the window.

"But the mate," Jane continues, "totally unremarkable."

"Totally unremarkable," Aro repeats.

"Why keep her?" she asks.

Aro sighs.

"Yes, the mate is a complication I did not anticipate," he confesses. "Tia, her name is. Tia. I planned to dispose of her from the very start, but my esteemed brother convinced me otherwise."

"Caius?" Jane asks, shocked.

"Marcus," I guess, still looking out the window. We push back and I'm relieved to be on our way, even if this plane is bringing me closer to my doom it also means I'm closer to home. "He used his gift, read their bond? He saw that their connection was too strong. That Benjamin would choose ash over unlife with the Volturi if his mate was burned before his eyes."

Aro lets out a delighted chortle. "Oh, my Isabella," he says. When his hand moves further up my thigh this time, I remain completely still. "Beauty and strength and wisdom. Truly something extraordinary. Did you see what she did with Benjamin's fire? Extraordinary."

Jane attempts to agree but ends up growling. Aro sighs.

"Really, Jane. This grudge you foster towards Isabella is both childish and exhausting."

"My apologies, Aro," Jane murmurs.

"You may go now," Aro says dismissively. Begrudgingly Jane stands, joining Chelsea and Dmitri at the front of the plane.

"You stopped fire today, Isabella," Aro whispers in my ear. I feel his breath against my skin and bite the side of my cheek to hold onto my composure. I have never been the most active participant when it comes to Aro, but if I reveal my disgust Aro is sure to prolong the misery. "Remarkable. You'd like to do it again, wouldn't you?"

Although his touch repulses me, this is worse. It's as if he is somehow in my head, despite my shield. He knows me, the demon part anyway, and I find nothing creepier than this.

"Yes, I would," I admit.

He lets out a delighted giggle and gropes at me. I just stare out the window, a passive puppet for him to do with what he likes.

There is a small chamber located next to Aro's rooms. It is mine when I'm in the castle. Although I can't speak to it's uses during my absence, I find a selection of clothes here to wear for Aro.

Today it's blood red lace and silk. It is always lace and silk. Only the color varies.

Aro gives me time to "prepare" myself when we arrive back in Italy, and I find myself dawdling longer than usual. On a typical day, I'm in a rush. The quicker Aro's had his fill, the quicker I can go home.

It's different now. I can't seem to make my feet move.

I dress in Aro's monstrous excuse for lingerie and stare at my reflection. It's old fashioned so I'm reasonably covered, but the purpose of the outfit makes me feel like the fabric is burning my skin.

My face in blank, amber eyes vacant. I am beautiful and terrible. I am a cold hard vampire. Evil resides within me. A demon kept on a very short leash by my unlife back home, by my daughter and my husband and my family.

They have no place within these thick stonewalls. Just the demon.

But today my insides quake. I feel impossibly sick, disgusted by what I have done. What I have to do again.

I promised Edward I would try to avoid this, but I can't figure out how. Aro was overly attentive on the plane. I can't just say no.

Can I just say no?

No, there is no great choice. It is this or my daughter, and that's no choice at all.

Three more deep breaths and I tear my eyes away from the stranger in the mirror. I walk as slowly as possible towards the wooden door separating Aro and I. I can hear him in there, already breathing heavy.

I want to cry, and for once I am thankful that tears are impossible.

When I reach the door I pause with my fingers on the handle. Aro stops his movement and I can picture it clearly in my head. He'll be in bed, clothed in some sort of robe to hide the majority of his ancient skin.

I'm expected to join him. I have to go in.

With stiff, jerky movements I open the door and enter. Aro's there on the bed, as expected. I keep my eyes downcast. Aro may like them small and powerful, but in this room he prefers submissive and demure. He likes dominating those who have strength outside these stone walls.

I slide into bed next to him, but do not cover myself with the sheet. Aro wouldn't like that. Aro likes to keep his collection in full view.

"Isabella," he says, lips to my ear again. This time I can't hide the shakes. "You are a queen."

He says this often. Something about my gift. I try to ignore his words as much as I try to ignore the rest of him.

His fingertips touch my skin and I close my eyes, trying to detach. Usually I can leave my body, go on autopilot and think of something else. I'm extremely good at faking it, not that Aro would care anyway.

But then I'm on my back, covered up by pale, thin flesh. He presses his lips to mine, and I think about the look on Edward's face when I left four days ago. Off to fight a very different kind of war, all on my own.

I lose it.

In a flash I'm on the far side of the room, too panicked to even find the door to the hall outside Aro's bedchamber. I can't even remember where the door I just came through is located.

My spine digs into stone as I bury my face in my hands. It takes me a long moment to realize that I'm chanting "no" over and over again.

The words leaving my mouth snap me back into reality. I pull myself together as best I can, standing up straight against the wall as my arms drop to my sides. The hardest part is opening my eyes, seeing him there, and knowing that I've ruined everything. That my family is no longer safe.

"Enough," Aro hisses: His blood red eyes bore into me and I drop my gaze to the floor. Years of learning just what Aro wants, just how to act to keep him happy, and look what I did.

He'll know now.

I glance down at my body, clothed in blood red lace and silk, and try not to gag. Before Edward came back I could do this. I could shut off my humanity. This is a sacrifice once effortlessly made.

"What is this?" Aro asks. I would rather him yell, scream. Anything would be better than the cold, sickly sweet tone that I recognize from countless executions. It's the voice he uses to give his victims hope that there is some way they can survive, right before he gives the final head nod that calls for flames.

I don't look at him. My body shakes slightly with the urge for violence as I try to remain submissive. All I want to do is tear him apart.

I wouldn't get to one limb before someone, probably Felix, came barreling through those doors to rip off my head. I wonder if Felix could do it. I wonder if he could actually rip off my head. He is my almost friend and maybe future ally, after all.

"What is this?" he repeats, getting so close I can smell the blood on his breath. He totally boxes me in.

"I just had a moment," I whisper, trying to explain. "I don't know what came over me."

"Oh, Isabella, do not lie. You have never been very good at it. Let's not embarrass ourselves, hmm?"

"I just…" I don't have the words for this. I want to be safe home in my woods with my family. Protected. "I… I'm just tired."

This is not a total lie. The heat I endured from Benjamin's manipulated fire did exhaust me. I close my eyes to add to the effect.

"Tired?" he asks, obviously skeptical. His hand closes around my throat and he forces my gaze to meet his. He studies me critically and I whimper when his hand tightens. "Of course," he murmurs to himself. "How could I not see before?"

"See what?" I whisper terrified of his answer. Surely he can't sense Edward on me. That would be absurd right?

"I am not totally certain," he continues in his quiet, thoughtful tone. His wide-eyed stare never falters. "But there is a change within you. A great change. What happened to you, Isabella?"

I gulp and think about ripping away from his grip. That would only enrage him further and it takes all my willpower to keep still.

"Nothing." I tilt my chin up and narrow my eyes, daring him to argue with me. "Nothing has changed. I just don't feel like doing this today."

Or ever again.

Aro raises a black eyebrow and watches me for another few moments before dropping his hand.

"Very well," he says, moving back towards the bed. "You may go. As usual give my regards to Carlisle. And send up Jane on your way out, will you?"

I blink, totally stunned. I was so sure he would force me, or threaten my family at the very least.

"Yes, Aro."

"I will see you soon, Isabella. Perhaps you will have a better explanation for what transpired here at that time."

Not fucking likely.

I remember where the door to the adjoining chamber is and walk towards it with as much calm as I can manage. At the last moment I pause with my fingers on the handle.

"Why?" I ask, still facing the door. Traditionally, there are no questions from me. I scarcely make a sound but now I figure I couldn't have fucked up this encounter worse, so I might as well go for it. I've always wondered.

"Why what. Isabella?"

I take a deep breath and look at him over my shoulder.

"Why me? Why this part of it?"

He smiles ruefully, and for the first time in the time I've known him, Aro looks sad. It's startling and horrifying and I hate that I asked.

"It's quiet," he murmurs, looking out the window. "Not all of us can control our gifts, you know. With you it's quiet."

Pushing through the door, I dress in record time, ripping Aro's garments from my body. I'm fleeing down the long corridor to the exit of the castle as what he means really sinks in.

With me it's quiet. That's why Edward noticed me first, too.

I launch myself into his arms the moment I'm through the sliding glass doors at the airport. He leans against the car, idling at the pick up curb. The walk through the airport at human speed was extremely painful. Knowing he was so close made me itchy.

He lifts me off the ground slightly, arms tightening around my waist. I push my forehead into his neck and let out a little sob.

"It's okay," he murmurs, stroking my hair. "It's okay. You are safe. You are here with me."

I shake in his arms and try to find my words.

This separation was probably much worse for him as the one left behind. He had to hold it together for our daughter, driving him crazy with thoughts of what I was doing at that particular moment and worrying about my safety.

I should be comforting him. And I will. I have the words and as soon as I stop shaking I'll share them.

Edward rocks me, his grip tightening and I breathe evenly, centering myself enough to speak.

"I couldn't do it," I confess with a sob.

He freezes, his whole body tensing.

"What?" he whispers. "What do you mean?"

I pull back, cradling his face in my hands and stroking his cheeks with my fingertips.

"I couldn't do it," I repeat. I give him a meaningful looking, hoping that he'll get it, hoping that I won't have to say it.

"Oh," he says, blinking rapidly. "Oh!" And now he's beaming. "Oh." And now he's frowning. "Good! I mean… yes… good, but is everything all right? I mean… how?"

Fuck, this is awkward and terrible and horrible.

"I don't know," I murmur as he puts me down. I study his feet, unable to meet his eyes as we discuss this. My hands drop to my sides, but he rests his on my hips. "I just… couldn't do it. I didn't explain why and he let me go and I have no idea what he was thinking but… I didn't do it. The worst of it, I didn't do that part. Although I did help the guard totally eliminate a coven so Aro could swoop in and recruit this poor vampire that can control the earth and fire and water. So that sucked."

I bite my lip and look up at Edward when I realize I'm babbling. He gives me the sweetest smile and pushes his hands through my hair before he lowers his mouth to mine.

The kiss is slow and perfect and has me whimpering. He loves me. I can feel it. Only a matter of time now until he says it out loud.

"I'm so sorry," he whispers against my lips. "So very sorry you had to go through this on your own."

I hum, wanting to kiss him more but knowing that this is not the appropriate venue.

"It's a start," I reply. "I'm not sure what will happen next time… but it's a start."

My husband kisses my forehead.

"Take me home, Edward," I whisper. "Just take me home."

After all their brainstorming and Bella just says no. None of the Cullens managed to come up with something that simple, huh?

So my first real action scene. It was a little uncomfortable, but there will be more to come so hopefully it read all right.

Unfortunately, updates are going to be slower from now on. I'm trying really hard to have multiple chapters done so when I post a cliffie you won't have to wait to long, but pretty much every chapter from here on out is kinda a cliffie. I'm going to guess there is going to be close to 30 chapters total but we'll see.

Also, I'm starting a new job! It's like my first real person job with a salary and benefits and the whole shebang so I won't have as much time to write. Being a grown up kinda blows, although I am pretty stoked about the job.

Thank you for reading. I love reviews, by the way.